Why organisational change needs contextual intelligence
18 March 2019
By Tim Wray
In Holland in the 1990s policymakers were alarmed to find that despite adding carefully placed road signs at a dangerous junction the number of accidents was still rising.
It was not until traffic engineer Hans Monderman introduced his concept of ‘shared space’ that things improved. His idea was to remove all the road signs and markings that had built up over the years.
Remarkably the number of accidents fell dramatically. Traffic slowed down as drivers were concentrating on what was ahead and watching other cars, rather than relying on the signs.
This seems to be analogous to what I have experienced many times working with leaders who are implementing change in organisations.
Rather than paying attention to the many moving parts that shape the change context and demand an approach tailored to the change setting with a willingness to adapt, they have their head down, slavishly following a change formula and ticking the boxes in the project plan.
This approach lacks what I call ‘contextual intelligence’. This encourages change leaders to lift their head up, look around and truly understand the environment that they want to implement the change in.
What is the organisation’s capacity for change in terms of money and time? Are people getting change-weary? Who holds the power and how dispersed is it? How many stakeholders are involved? How unionised is the organisation?
A change model or framework can provide a good starting point. And while there are broad truisms about change, at the same time, if change leaders don’t observe and take account of the unique factors in their organisation they are on a hiding to nothing.
For instance, driving change as the owner of a small business with 50 employees is a lot different to installing it in a complex organisation like a hospital trust where the power base is widely dispersed, with multiple stakeholders and regulatory parties involved. It can’t be a top-down approach, the CEO will need to win buy-in from all the stakeholders before proceeding, so it will be a consultative style of change.
The context will determine the strategy needed to implement the change. Will it be top-down or bottom-up? Do we need pilots and islands of excellence?
Developing a more sophisticated approach to organisational change, that is context sensitive, will be a key theme on the new Executive Diploma in Organisational Change.
The ‘change kaleidoscope’ a framework developed by Veronica Hope Hailey and Julia Balogun some years ago is a very good starting point. It points to eight important contextual features – time, power, scope, readiness, preservation, capacity, capability and diversity. It’s a change model with a difference as it signposts key factors that will inform your change strategy rather than prescribing the approach.
On the diploma I build on this by introducing a three-dimensional perspective on context, an approach that views the past and the future (where we want to get to), as important contextual features as well as the present.
Understanding an organisation’s history, particularly how it has handled change in the past, is critical as this will continue to resonate in the present.
In my early career I worked for a company that had previously been a state-owned monopoly. At one point the company endured a very bitter strike that went on for 18 weeks.
When I was head of internal communications there 15 years later, trying to support a necessary and major change programme, the old enmity from that strike was still alive. Former adversaries had to talk to each other or sit in meetings together.
That was a major issue we had to overcome, so understanding those informal networks of influence and the history of the organisation was incredibly important.
In many organisations people have lived through waves of previous change initiatives. They will say to each other “sit tight, it will all blow over soon, just like before”. Indeed, the greatest form of resistance people have to change is doing nothing. Ignoring the past and going in blind with no sense of the change journey people have been on before is setting yourself up for a fall.
Change leaders need that hindsight and they also require foresight. That is a clear sense of vision of where their industry is heading and how the change fits into that future.
It is easy to get trapped in the bubble of your own organisation and lose touch with the wider environment. Herminia Ibarra, Professor of Organisational Behaviour, warns leaders of the danger of professional networks that are effectively echo chambers, playing back and reinforcing their existing view of the world.
People need networks that connect them to the ground-breakers in their industry and tap into the new thinking and thought leaders that affect their sector and profession. This will help shape the change and make sure it does not get overtaken by a rapidly evolving environment.
How behavioural science can help contextual intelligence?
When thinking contextually about change we also need to be aware of our biases. Research from behavioural science has unearthed mental short-cuts we all use, such as the confirmation bias, where we tend to search for facts and information that supports our pre-existing view.
Hindsight bias distorts our memories of what we knew or believed before an event occurred and is a significant source of overconfidence regarding our ability to predict the outcomes of future events.
The contextually aware change leader identifies the key factors shaping the setting for change and seeks to understand the dynamics of this. It requires interpretation and “reading between the lines” for meaning.
That’s why it is so important that we guard against our own biases in the process. Inviting others with different perspectives to challenge your thinking is a key first step.
Frameworks and models are a great starting point, but greater contextual intelligence will help change leaders have a more sophisticated understanding and be able to navigate the change path for their organisations more effectively.
Tim Wray is Professor of Practice in Strategy and Interantional Business.
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